There is something special about the first couple of weeks in October. Summer gardening is coming to a close, pumpkins are turning from dark green to bright orange. The air is changing from warm and moist to crisp and dry. Transition is happening in nature and in life. Sorghum making takes place during this period before freezing, but after those hot days of summer when the sorghum was thriving and growing. The cane that was planted in June is now mature and ready for harvest.
Sorghum is a sweet, dark, heavy syrup made by cooking the juice squeezed from sorghum cane. Sorghum is a tall cane that looks similar to field corn and makes a cone-shaped seed head filled with BB-sized seeds. Similar to maple syrup, the sweet juice cooks down into syrup. It takes approximately 10 gallons of sorghum juice to make 1 gallon of syrup. Its qualities are somewhat like that of molasses and can be used in place of molasses in many recipes.
About Sorghum: What Exactly Is It?
Occasionally sorghum is called molasses, especially by those who grew up with sorghum and always used it as molasses would be used. But, technically, molasses is derived only from the process of making cane sugar. Sorghum is made only from the juice of sorghum cane and is not a by-product. Sorghum is rich in minerals and has a complex flavor that makes it desirable to use in recipes, such as for barbecue sauce or baked beans, where lots of rich flavor is the goal. When made at home, every batch of sorghum turns out a little different, as there are many variables in the process. The variety of cane grown, the summer weather in which it grew, the maturity of the cane during harvest, the length of cooking, heat, skimming … all these things work together to offer a unique product each time. This is an incredible way to make a nutritious, tasty homemade sugar.
The making of sorghum syrup can be accomplished by the help of a few people. It can become more than a farm chore if friends, neighbors and relatives alike join in the labor intensive, day-long cook-off. On our farm all helpers will be well fed during the event and have a jar of homemade syrup to take home with them at the end of the day. It just takes a day to see the harvested cane turn into a finished product!
Growing Sorghum Cane
Though the event of harvest and cooking are done in late summer, the cane must be planted, thinned and fertilized in late May to early June. There are several seed varieties available. ‘Sugar Drip’ is a favorite among sorghum makers, but is sometimes hard to find if you do not know of a grower. (Visit our Seed and Plant Finder to find sources.) Most varieties should not cost more than about $7 per half pound. I’ve seen seed catalogs carrying sorghum seed packets containing only 50 seeds. This is useless for a harvest. For a small crop that can be processed in a day, you’ll need about 6 rows of cane, 100 feet in length thinned to 6 inches apart. This takes about a quarter pound of seed for sowing and then replanting in areas of poor germination. A reliable variety, ‘Rox Orange,’ is always available in bulk packaging from R. H. Shumway’s. Once you have mature seed heads, you will have more than enough seed for future plantings and to use for birdseed, as well. The cane should be fertilized and cultivated like a crop of corn. (See All About Growing Sweet Corn.) Irrigation should not be necessary in most climates under normal summer conditions.
Before the day of cooking sorghum, a lot of preparations must be made. You’ll need to gather firewood, and clean and repair the fireplace if necessary. Our fireplace is a fire pit surrounded on three sides with cinder blocks two high. It’s about 3 feet wide and 6 feet long, built to support the stainless steel pan about that size. It sits perfectly on the cinder block platform. One narrow end of the platform is left open for adding firewood, and the opposite end is built out with cinder blocks for a 12-inch diameter, 6-foot tall stovepipe to ensure the fire has a good draw. It is best if the blocks are mostly level so that the juice sits evenly in the pan when cooking.
A few yards from the cooker sits the sorghum mill or press. It is positioned about 4 feet high on a wooden base. This base must be made sturdy and kept sturdy year to year as the weight of the mill is immense. The base must also be able to withstand the torque it is subjected to when in use. The mill should be cleaned with hot soapy water and the cogs oiled. The log that fits atop the mill to turn the gears must be lifted and set on.
Harvesting the Sorghum Cane
Remove all the leaves and seed heads from the mature cane. This can be done a few days before cutting and squeezing. Then with a long-handled scythe, cut the cane as close to the ground as possible, and lay it in piles. For our press, the blunt end (or bottom) of the cane needs to be entered first, so it is beneficial to pile them all in the same direction to avoid jamming the mill.
Milling Sorghum Cane
Early on the day of cooking the squeezing begins. We use a riding lawnmower to drive the pole around the mill. Three to five canes can be put into the mill at a time. As the juice is pouring out of the mouth of the mill it goes through a strainer lined with cheesecloth sitting on top of a 10-gallon milk can. The thin juice is a greenish color and tastes green and sweet. The kids like to try the juice and they are all welcome to chew on a stick of cane. It's a lot like candy — they just have to spit out the pith once the sweet juice has been chewed out of it. All morning bundles of cane are brought from the field to be squeezed and discarded away from the mill.
Once squeezing has commenced, build a fire in the pit. After at least 20 gallons of juice has been extracted, you can begin cooking. The cleaned pan is placed on the fire and the juice is immediately and carefully poured in. Our pan has 6 inch sides and we have to take care not to slosh the juice. Forty to 50 gallons of juice is a good batch for our pan, and the typical amount of juice attained from our crop.
All the juice should be added before it has gotten really hot. The rest of the day as it simmers, we use a skimmer and strainer to remove the “green” that is constantly floating to the surface as a foamy substance. It must all be removed to ensure a clean, flavorful sorghum. I use this by-product as an additive to our pigs’ feed. Another thing the pigs love is the spent canes: They eat them, chew on them, wallow in them and sleep on them.
The syrup must be stirred for several hours (in between skimming) to maintain even heating, and the fire must be kept hot. If it isn’t hot enough there won't be enough evaporation to make the process continue, and if it’s too hot it will start scorching. Eventually there will be less scum and brownish bubbles start appearing. Once this happens, it is getting close to finished. It’s time to make decisions about how thick the syrup is and if it tastes done. This is a fun time and everyone has an opinion. It’s a learning process as it can be overcooked or undercooked. Be especially careful not to undercook or underskim, as that can ruin a batch more than anything else. The “green” can make a syrup go rancid, and undercooking can cause it to develop mold. It shouldn't taste raw, like the juice taste when it is first squeezed from the stalk, and it should be thick, like corn syrup. Also take into consideration that the hot syrup will be thicker once it’s cool.
Finishing the Sorghum Making
Once the decision is made, about four people are needed to lift the pan off the fire and onto a couple of iron pipes on the ground. A brick is placed under one end of the pan to make the syrup all accumulate to the other end. The sorghum is immediately ladled into sterilized jars and clean lids screwed on. There is an unspeakable amount of satisfaction in cultivating a crop and seeing it turn into a special sugar that has become increasingly rare.
The Sorghum Making Tradition
Sorghum making is like an old treasure chest to me. There is a plethora of wonderful memories I get to recall and share with others who have similar sorghum making experiences from their youth. Most importantly to me, I get to share this craft with my children, and others that are intrigued by and respectful of the old ways and the wisdom of the past.
It is the end of the day on the farm after sorghum making. The pan has been licked clean, rinsed out and set to rest against a nearby oak tree. The fire is built higher and hot dogs and marshmallows are brought out. Sticks are being sharpened and laughter and voices fill the air. Kids are playing hide-and-seek, and the stars are coming out to shine. Everyone gathers around the flames to eat and enjoy. The environment leads to conversation and questions: How was this batch different than last year’s? Why was the passion fruit riper last year than this? When is the first frost coming? The first hard freeze? The last summer party of the year is coming to a close; bring on dreams of baked sweet potatoes and hot biscuits smothered with butter and drizzled with sorghum. Bring on the fall, we are ready.
Notes About Finding a Sorghum Mill
Old horse-drawn sorghum mills like the one that we use can still be found. They may be sitting in old barns, or in junk piles on old farms. These are wonderful machines waiting to be resurrected, and hopefully will be saved before being taken in as scrap metal. Occasionally they are listed on eBay or Craigslist. You may have luck searching online for “sorghum mill,” “sugar cane mill” or “sorghum press.” Run an ad in a local paper, or post on local online bulletin boards to find a mill.
There are some ideas online for fabricating homemade squeezers. Please consider that any design that can only squeeze one cane at a time, or that makes it necessary to modify the cane in any way is going to make the process even more labor intensive. If fabricating a mill, the case and rollers must be very strong, as squeezing the cane takes a lot of pressure. It can be done, though; the design can be kept simple. In our day and age a machinist could easily make or acquire the parts to put together an adequate mill.
Another idea is to contact your local university extension office. They may have an agent that has information about sorghum or even access to a mobile sorghum press.
See Also: Sorghum Syrup
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If anyone knows of a North American source for new sorghum or sugar cane mills, please let us know by posting a comment below. Or if you would be interested in developing DIY plans for building these mills, please e-mail RealFood@MotherEarthNews.com with the Subject Line “sorghum mills.”